How to Die Every Day

Interview with Fiona Sze-Lorrain: My Funeral Gondola
By Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé

Fiona Lorrain Pix

Photograph by Sabine Dundure

DK: In his praise of your collection, Arthur Sze writes of you journeying “through shifting places and times, deaths and imagined deaths, with sharp, lyrical insight”. Tell us why death — at least, the idea of it — is central to your second collection of poems?

FSL: If death seems a central theme or idea, it’s certainly not something deliberate. This applies to grief, too. It’s important to know how to die every day and not to live in order not to die — that’s, to live for life and life. The writing of some poems in My Funeral Gondola stretches back to 2005. To a related interview in Triquarterly, I responded:

“Some poems are elegies. Or at least they started off as elegies. They speak directly to my experience of loss and recovery. I am less inclined to acknowledge the redemptive aspect of grief — the idea of self-absolution may be misunderstood as some gentle “encouragement” to feel better with regrets — though I try my best to go beyond its reckoning. Perhaps this is why I chose Nazim Hikmet for my epigraph — the irony of desiring longevity in a mortal world points back to the absurdity and illusion of what we believe to be closure.”

DK: Indeed, and I cite your quote from Hikmet: “In this yard I was happier than you’ll ever know. Neighbors, I wish you all long lives.” Then you issue your three large, whirling sections with a solitary poem, titled “Sixteen Lines, Autumn 2010.” Tell us what went into the decision to give this poem such prominence.

FSL: By chance, it was one of the last poems I wrote before the idea of this collection became more and more convincing. Each line can be read for an image or a message that helps in nuancing other poems without being prescriptive or assertive. They say the first line is always the hardest. That’s probably true for the first poem.

DK: Your chapters neaten the different kinds of work your poems are attempting. You start with “The Title Took Its Life,” then “Odd Spirits,” and end off with “Not Thinking About the Past.” Was this the way you envisioned this collection to segment itself?

FSL: Yes.

DK: How did you make the choice to collect these poems in these three ways?

FSL: The three sections might constitute three kinds of denouement, though the irony — or impossibility — of a definite end is to some degree implied in each title.

DK: I’m going to place a few words from your collection, and offer them up as prompts. It’s like a Lacanian exercise in attempting to understand the symbolic/imaginary/real for the poet in you. What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when I say:

a. Li Po tourism
b. Elegy/Dream/Lullaby Venice
c. (You’re orchids.) a lover’s voice
d. Hokkaido solitude
e. Rimbaud Africa
f. Transgression now
g. Emily Dickinson letter
h. Shanghai pollution
i. Jalan Bahagia laksa
j. Self ocean

DK: In her praise of your book, Melissa Kwasny writes: “It is said that grief is our most dangerous emotion, eliciting from us the desire to follow our loved ones into death. Yet not much is said of the dying one does in life in response to it: ‘I settle where the wind / blows me. From one state of gratitude / to another province.’ I recognize this speech, haunting and strange, the speech of true poets, who surface from the pain place irreparably changed.” I love Kwasny’s take on this. I’d like to take up her phrase: “speech of true poets.” How would you interpret a claim like that?

FSL: That it is an act. And it enacts.

DK: What were the first books that first made an impression on you?

FSL: I read Kafka’s The Castle at eighteen. I’m unsure if this was one of the “first” books — or if I could understand much of Kafka then — but it stayed with me since. And Sartre’s autobiography, Les Mots / Words (1963).

DK: What books are you reading now?

FSL: Mostly books in French — Annie Ernaux’s Retour à Yvetot (2013), Proust’s book of critical prose, Contre Sainte-Beuve, fashion magazines….

I am looking forward to reading Adrian Goldsworthy’s new biography of Caesar Augustus, Augustus: First Emperor of Rome (2014) and a few new titles related to phytotherapy.

DK: What are your current projects?

FSL: I am completing the translation of a book of poetry, Mirror by contemporary Chinese poet Zhang Zao (1962-2010). It is forthcoming from Zephyr Press in 2015.

This posthumous volume includes my translation of two related essays by leading post-“Misty” poet Bai Hua and “Misty” poet Bei Dao. Zhang Zao is/was a key literary figure of the “third generation” of Chinese contemporary poets, as well as a recognized literary critic and translator. (With Chen Dongbiao and Chen Dongdong, he co-translated and co-edited poems by Wallace Stevens, among others.) Zhang “self-exiled” to Germany for several years and died at forty-eight in Tübingen, the town of Hölderlin.

Here is a translation of Zhang Zao that dialogues with some poems in My Funeral Gondola:

Elegy

a letter opens and someone says
it’s getting cold
another letter opens
it is empty, empty
yet heavier than the world
a letter opens
someone says he is singing from a mountain height
someone says no, even if the potato was dead
the inertia alive in it
would still grow tiny hands
another letter opens
you sleep like a tangerine
but after peeling off your nudity someone says
he has touched another you
another letter opens
they are all laughing
everything around explodes into laughter
a letter opens
clouds and water run wild outside
a letter opens
I am chewing a certain darkness
another letter opens
high moon in the sky
another letter opens and shouts
death is something real

(1992)

For more on Fiona Sze-Lorrain, please visit her website. You may find My Funeral Gondola here.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

2 comments

  1. Tom Lapsley

    I thought the poem on letter opening (Elergy) was sad. I’m sadden by your pain.

    Sincerely,
    Tom {TL}

    Like

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